From Hippie Troubadour to WNY Jinglemeister
By Genn Gramigna
“Dress up your home for less, FWS!”
“Sweet Dreams Happen on a City Mattress!”
“Dan Georger is Mr. Mitsubishi!”
You might forget your anniversary or your son’s birthday. But we’ll all go to our graves with these ditties stuck like fly paper to our brain stems, thanks to the tireless work of Ken Kaufman. A reformed hipster whose mission during the sixties was to bring spiritual enlightenment to mankind, Kaufman now happily settled for the title of jingle guru to WNY’s business elite.
Do you ever wonder how it is possible that Tops Never Stops? Have you ever spent a frustrating Saturday afternoon looking for the Do It Yourselfer in You? You should know that you owe these and many other tuneful quandaries to this former keyboardist for The Road an ongoing quoter of Socrates and Buddha who grew up to become a kind of Gershwin for the sixty second spot.
“If I have any frustration in my life it is the fact that I am not writing great popular songs that everyone is listening to and yes I’m probably about the most dissatisfied, disappointed person around when I see all the injustice and suffering in the world,” says Kaufman matter-of-factly between takes for his latest recording session. “But I get very passionate about my jingles too. They are also a way of helping people and they’ve enabled me to live a very comfortable life and send both my children through private schools. So what am I supposed to do, be unhappy about that?”
Kaufman simply doesn’t have time to be unhappy. After working many a vigorous 9-5 shift as a jingle writer and producer, he also plays a smooth as silk keyboard at Lord Chumley’s on weekends, not to mention the occasional wedding, party, or barmitzva gigs. During the hockey season he even mans the organ at the HSBS Arena where he fills the air with the haunting strains of “Here We Go Sabres” and “Let’s Go Buffalo.”
“If you are going to make a living as a musician and also stay in Buffalo, you have to be willing to diversify,” Kaufman explains. “You have to be willing to do anything you can to keep going and that’s what I do.”
Of course, little of this would have seemed even faintly likely to a nineteen-year-old Eastman School of Music dropout who resolved to look for the meaning of life on the road with legendary local rock group The Road. A North Buffalo native who had taken piano lesions since he was 7, Kaufman played show tunes with a high school band in his teens before going off to study composition at the prestigious Rochester music Mecca.
“Then I met Jerry and Phil Hudson and Joe Hesse and Nick DiStefano and went off with them as part of The Road, which was actually a lot of fun he recalls. “We believed tat we could help the world find answers through increased understanding of the mind and spirit. We sold books about understanding the mind and spiritual awareness at our concerts. We recorded an operetta I wrote about a character named Tuley, an alien whose mission it was to spread spiritual truth on Earth. There may have been times I thought I was Tuley, but really it’s just a character…although I am an alien!”
Despite opening for the likes of the Byrds, the Four Seasons, and even selling several thousand albums in their time, the Roadsters never made much money, a sad fact that led Kaufman to look around for an alternative career.
“I had come back to Buffalo for a while during the middle 70s and I ran into a guy named Allen Baumgartner who asked me to write a jingle for D & E Oldsmobile, he recalls. “I found I enjoyed doing it and actually got paid pretty well too. And, then I did one for ‘Sure Fire Food Pantries.’ I think it went ‘We put our pride in what’s inside.’ Pretty soon, I was hooked and I’ve been doing it ever since.”
After working several years for others, Kaufman founded his own company, “Adsongs,” in 1981 which allows him to reap most of the profits as well as the plaudits from all the jingles he produces. Yet, far from thinking of jingles as strictly a means to a financial end, he points to the technical advances he has made in the process of assuring citizens that they can “bet on it at OTB” or inviting investors to embrace “person to person commitment” promised by the now defunct Niagra County Bank.
“Because I’ve been doing jingles all these years, I have learned to orchestrate and produce to the point where I can work every instrument there is, even bagpipes,” Kaufman points out. “I can walk into any recording studio and I can do anything I want and mean anything. That’s a great feeling for any musician.”
Still, Kaufman’s commercial magic isn’t limited to his artistry as a producer alone. Ad pros such as Entercom’s Kevin Devine will tell you his greatest value may be as a marketing specialist who knows the local consumer cold and can fashion the kind of advertising strategy that has turned many an area also ran into a winner.
“Kenny isn’t just some guy in California who is trying to write jingles for this market along with 30 others,” Devine points out. “He has lived here all his life. He knows what people in this area are like. That makes an enormous difference in an area like WNY.”
What he did for us is probably an excellent example of what Kenny does,” adds Dan Georger whom Kaufman transformed from a new and struggling dealer to Mr. Mitsubishi almost overnight. “Things were pretty sad here from the time I opened my dealership in October ’91 until we hired Kenny the following fall. He didn’t just write a jingle for us, he came here and took a tour of the place. He talked to me about what was unique and unusual about what we have to offer and then left and wrote a jingle that we have been using for almost 10 years which has made us the #1 Mitsubishi dealer in Upstate New York.”
Not only is Kaufman’s jingle working for him now, but Georger understands that he could take it off the air tomorrow and it would still be bringing him customers one, two, five or even ten years from now.
“They say that kids develop their musical taste when they are 10 or 12 years old,” Georger notes. “It seems like they first hear our jingle when they are very young and remember it forever. I can’t tell you the number of children who come in here with their parents singing our jingle. It’s the same with adults. All I have to do is say my name and people will say. ‘Oh, you’re Mr. Mitsubishi!’ At one point Kenny and I had talked about doing a new jingle, but you know what, I wouldn’t have changed that jingle to save my life.”
Kaufman explains this phenomenon by pointing to the proven supremacy of echoic or audio memory over visual or oconic recollections as proven by scientists as well as marketers. “All you have to do to prove it is turn on your TV set but turn the picture off and then do it with the sound off and see what happens,” he insists. “You’ll forget what you’ve seen but remember what you’ve heard. That’ why all music and word plays and alliteration techniques that I use are so powerful.”
The result has been a quarter century career in jingles, which has brought Kaufman a reported six-figure salary.
And the younger, more idealist, infinity seeking Ken – 100 pounds heavier with a pony tail- has seemed reconciled in recent years with the older, more practical version who cheers on the Sabres and looks like an accountant.
“In the first place, as a Libertarian, I believe that starting a business with the goal of offering a new product or giving people a better service than they had is a spiritual act itself,” Kaufman states. “Also, when somebody hires me to do their jingle, they are paying a good amount for my services. Very often these people have put their entire lives into this business. They’ve worked night and day and put all their money into it, so you better believe I take it very seriously. If I can do something to help these people that have put their trust in me, then yes, that is something I also get very passionate about.”
In pursuit of those elusive final pieces of the eternal puzzle that is Earthly life, Kaufman turns to his weekend gigs at Lord Chumley’s where he taps out jazz licks in the Bill Evans/ Dave Brubeck vein with vocalist Michelle Farina and fellow Road veteran Phil Hudson. At other times, he pursues vegetarian nirvana with the help of nutritionist and Spree Contributor Christina Bolich or seeks out indie favorites such as the much-praised Chocolat at local art houses.
“I also still read everything I can get my hands on and I’m still fervently hoping that more people will follow their bliss as Joseph Campbell urges and truly love each other as Socrates and Jesus preached,” Kaufman reflects. “Whether that is ever going to happen remains to be seen.”
Meanwhile as he works on a second operetta about Tuley, Kaufman reflects on the many changes both he and his spiritual thrill seeking alien pal have gone through over the years.
“Like Tuley, I’m still in my own way seeking spiritual growth and enlightenment for mankind,” Kaufman reports. “Its just that neither one of us is doing it quite the same way we did in the sixties.”
Reprinted from BUFFALO SPREE, May/June 2001, Arts Profile, pages 30 – 35